I’m pretty sure that the title of director Zack Snyder’s “Army of the Dead” refers to the zombie horde that has overtaken Las Vegas, but it also fits the posse of inert human characters assembled to combat them. “Army of the Dead” kicks off its truly great premise really strong, but soon devolves into an overlong series of poorly paced scenes and lackluster attempts character development. It’s essentially “Ocean’s 11” meets a zombie invasion that sees Snyder—whose directorial debut was a 2004 remake of “Dawn of the Dead”—returning to the genre that started his career, but that also contains everything we’ve come to expect from a Snyder movie. That could either be great or terrible, depending on your thoughts on the director’s previous work.
The film opens with an Area 51 transport carrying a zombie colliding with a just-eloped couple traveling from Vegas. The zombie escapes, infects other people, and soon—as the song “Viva Las Vegas” plays over the opening credits—we see hordes of the undead wash over the city’s famous attractions and casinos, culminating in the government walling off the city from the world outside. Some time later, it is announced that the military is planning a nuclear strike to completely demolish the city. Casino owner Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada) hires former mercenary turned burger-flipper Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) to infiltrate the city and recover $200 million from his casino vault before the strike occurs. Scott agrees, and what follows is the typical getting the team together sequence as he recruits friends and former colleagues, sharpshooters and safecrackers, to join him on the mission. What Scott isn’t expecting is for his estranged daughter Kate (Ella Purnell) to also join them when she discovers that one of her friends was escorted into the city and never made it out.
Almost everything about “Army of the Dead” looks good on paper, but despite its gleefully gory prologue, the film becomes a mess rather quickly. It never justifies its two and a half hour runtime; several cuts could have made this a brisk and breezy action movie that would have be infinitely easier to consume. Snyder, along with co-writers Shay Hatten and Joby Harold, try to inject the film with the requisite heartfelt character moments in between the buckets of blood, but they pretty consistently fall flat. There are simply too many characters who are killed off so quickly, the film acts like we should be feeling our loss, but we don’t. We have next to no reason to care whether they succeed at their mission or not, their occasionally humorous banter serving as almost their only endearing qualities. I hesitate to say that Bautista is a great actor, but I did enjoy watching him take the lead in this film, as he ably embodies both the macho hero and a man who has been left emotionally vulnerable by personal loss. Despite the bright neon colors exhibited in the film’s posters and other marketing, the movie itself is pretty drab; I know it takes place in a post-apocalyptic war zone, but some pops of color would have been nice, and as well some better usage of the setting. Furthermore, despite the abundance of action scenes, “Army of the Dead” crawls at a snail’s pace that makes it a real bore to watch at times (this is where some of that aforementioned tightening up would have come in handy). Snyder and team do have some fun ideas—the design of the zombies, which are the opposite of the normally slow-walking creepers, are pretty unique, and the inclusion of a zombie tiger is really fun and one of the few moments the story really takes advantage of its Vegas setting—but the final product is too messy to really be enjoyable. I’ll even sidestep the conversation surrounding Snyder’s use of music in this movie (for me, “Watchmen” will always contain the worse Snyder needle drops, so I remain largely unbothered by him beating us over the head with The Cranberries’ “Zombie” here).
In fact, the behind-the-scenes saga of how “Army of the Dead” got made is more interesting that the movie itself. When abuse allegations surrounding actor Chris D’Elia surfaced after filming had completed, he was replaced by dead-pan comedian Tig Notaro as the wise-cracking, ready-for-anything chopper pilot Peters. This ended up being a happy circumstance, because Notaro is really great and truly one of the movie’s bright spots. Because of pandemic restrictions, Notaro filmed her scenes in the fall of 2020 on a green screen, and was added into the film using CGI. Furthermore, when developing the zombie tiger, the visual effects team when on a research trip to none other than Carole Baskin’s Big Cat Rescue (this was prior to the release of Netflix’s “Tiger King,” which turned Baskin into a household name). Believe it or not, I’m not the biggest Snyder hater, but I’m also not the biggest fan, so I anticipate that “Army of the Dead” will check all the boxes for people who are. And with prequels, spinoffs, and a potential sequel already in development, we aren’t done with this story yet.
The cast of “Army of the Dead” also includes Omari Hardwick, Ana de la Reguera, Theo Rossi, Matthias Schweighöfer, Raúl Castillo, Garret Dillahunt, Huma Qureshi, Samantha Win, and Nora Arnezeder.
“Army of the Dead” is now playing in select theaters and streaming on Netflix. Runtime: 148 minutes. Rated R.